BAGHDAD, Iraq – Gunmen killed dozens of civilians Thursday and dumped their bodies in a ditch, as the government ordered a tough daytime curfew of Baghdad and three provinces to stem the sectarian violence that has left at least 114 dead since the bombing of a Shiite shrine.
Seven U.S. soldiers died in a pair of roadside bombings north of the capital, and American military units in the Baghdad area were told to halt all but essential travel to avoid getting caught up in demonstrations or roadblocks.
As the country careened to the brink of civil war, Iraqi state television announced an unusual daytime curfew, ordering people off the streets Friday in Baghdad and the nearby flashpoint provinces of Diyala, Babil and Salaheddin, where the shrine bombing took place.
Such a sweeping daytime curfew indicated the depth of fear within the government that the crisis could touch off a Sunni-Shiite civil war. “This is the first time that I have heard politicians say they are worried about the outbreak of civil war,” Kurdish elder statesman Mahmoud Othman told The Associated Press.
The biggest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament announced it was pulling out of talks on a new government until the national leadership apologizes for damage to Sunni mosques from reprisal attacks.
“It is illogical to negotiate with parties that are trying to damage the political process,” said Tariq al-Hashimi, a leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front.
Most of the bloodshed has been concentrated in the capital, its surrounding provinces and the province of Basra, 340 miles to the southeast.
Among the victims was Atwar Bahjat, a widely known Sunni correspondent for the Arab satellite television station Al-Arabiya.
Gunmen in a pickup truck shouting “We want the correspondent!” killed Bajhat along with her cameraman and engineer while they were interviewing Iraqis about Wednesday’s destruction of the famed golden dome of the Shiite shrine Askariya in her hometown of Samarra.
Shiite and Sunni leaders again appealed for calm Thursday following the wave of attacks on Sunni mosques, and the number of violent incidents appeared to decline after the government extended the curfew.
Iraqi television said the curfew would extend until 4 p.m. Friday, preventing people from attending the week’s most important Muslim prayer service. Officials feared mosques could be both a target for attacks and a venue for stirring sectarian feelings.
President Bush said he appreciated the appeals for calm, and called the shrine bombing “an evil act” aimed at creating strife.
A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said discussions were under way to rebuild the shrine as quickly as possible because the shattered structure would serve as a “lasting provocation” until it was reconstructed. Italy announced Thursday it was offering to rebuild the dome to help battle “fanaticism.”
Despite strident comments from various Iraqi leaders, U.S. officials said they believed mainstream politicians understood the grave danger facing the country and would try to prevent civil war.
“We’re not seeing civil war igniting in
Iraq,” Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a spokesman for the U.S. command, told reporters.
Nevertheless, sectarian passions were running high.
A Shiite cleric was shot dead Thursday night in Tuz Khormato, a mostly Kurdish city 130 miles north of Baghdad, and another Sunni preacher was killed the mostly Shiite city of Hillah 60 miles south of the capital.
Two Sunni mosques were burned Thursday in Baghdad and another in Mussayib to the south, police said. A Sunni was killed when gunmen fired on a mosque in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Dozens of bodies were found Thursday dumped at sites in Baghdad and the Shiite heartland in southern Iraq, many of them with their hands bound and shot execution-style. They were believed to have been killed Wednesday night.
Although the violence appeared to be waning Thursday, the brutality did not.
The bodies of the 47 civilians, mostly men between ages 20 and 50, were found early Thursday in a ditch near Baqouba. Police said the victims — both Sunnis and Shiites — had apparently been stopped by gunmen, hauled from their cars and shot.
Fighting erupted in Mahmoudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, between Sunni gunmen and militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who were guarding a mosque. Two civilians were killed and five militiamen were wounded, police Capt. Rashid al-Samaraie said.
Workers at two U.S.-funded water treatment projects in Baghdad were told to stay home Thursday to avoid trouble. American officials also ordered a lockdown in some locations within the Green Zone, home of U.S. and Iraqi government offices, after two or three mortar shells exploded, causing no casualties.
The bullet-riddled bodies of the Al-Arabiya correspondent and her two colleagues from the Wassan media company were found Thursday a few miles outside Samarra. All three were Sunni Arabs. It was unclear why they were targeted, although the station has a reputation as critical of the insurgency.
Eight Iraqi soldiers and eight civilians were killed Thursday when a bomb hidden in a soup vendor’s cart detonated in Baqouba, police said. At least 20 people were wounded in the blast. In Julula, 75 miles northeast of Baghdad, a parked car exploded and killed three civilians and injured three others, police said.
Following the sectarian attacks, Shiite and Sunni leaders blamed each other for the violence, with each side portraying itself as the victim.
The Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars said at least 168 Sunni mosques had been attacked, 10 imams killed and 15 abducted since the shrine attack. The Interior Ministry said it could only confirm figures for Baghdad, where it had reports of 19 mosques attacked, one cleric killed and one abducted.
Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the Sunni association, blamed the violence on the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and other Shiite religious leaders who called for demonstrations against the shrine attack.
Al-Sadr, the Shiite radical, told Al-Jazeera television from
Iran that Sunnis should join Shiites in pledging not to kill fellow Muslims to distance themselves from “takfiris” — Sunni extremists who target Shiites.
Al-Kubaisi said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad enflamed the situation when he warned at a press conference Monday that the United States would not continue to support institutions run by sectarian groups with links to armed militias. Shiites control the Interior Ministry, which Sunnis claim operates death squads targeting them.
Shiite party leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim said Khalilzad bore some responsibility for the Samarra attack because of this warning, and al-Kubaisi said “without doubt,” the ambassador’s comments “mobilized all the Shiites” and “made them ready to go down to the street at any moment.”
The United States considers Sunni participation in a new government vital to calming the Sunni-led insurgency so that the 138,000 U.S. troops can begin to go home this year.
Sunni leaders also boycotted a reconciliation meeting with Shiites and Kurds called by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.
After the meeting, Talabani told reporters that the participants agreed the best way to respond to Wednesday’s attack was to form a unity government “whose top job should be getting the security situation under control and fighting terrorism.”
“If the fire of internal strife breaks out, God forbid,” Talabani said, “it will harm everyone.”